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Directed by the amiable Ken Annakin, The Fast Lady (1963) represents the end of one era of British filmmaking. Conversely, it helped launched the career of an actress closely associated with the era that followed. A slapstick farce populated by a gang of familiar British archetypes, The Fast Lady echoes the team comedies that became popular throughout Great Britain in the 1950s. After the film was released to great box office success, star Julie Christie was determined to leave behind this type of studio filmmaking and focus on the socially relevant work of the Angry Young Man generation who dominated Britain in the 1960s.
The "lady" in this British slapstick comedy refers not to a beautiful woman but an antique Bentley sports car. Comic actor Stanley Baxter stars as a civil servant with the ridiculous name of Murdoch Troon who is smitten with Claire Chingford, played by a then-unknown Julie Christie. Claire is the daughter of a gruff, wealthy businessman who owns a car dealership. Murdoch believes he can impress Claire if he buys a distinctive automobile so he can take her driving. Murdoch does not know how to drive, but this is a small problem he hopes to rectify soon. His roommate, Freddie Fox, whose last name hints at his identity as a cad and ladies' man, not only obtains The Fast Lady for him but also enlists the help of a highly nervous driving instructor to teach Murdoch how to handle an automobile. James Robertson Justice, Leslie Phillips, and Eric Barker costar as Commodore Chingford, Freddie Fox, and the hapless instructor, rounding out the featured players of the ensemble cast of comic actors.
A very physical comedy, The Fast Lady parodies quintessential English character types, makes use of slapstick, clips along at a fast pace, and concludes with a comic chase. The latter sequence begins when a policeman climbs into "The Fast Lady" with Murdoch and demands that he pursue a car load of bank robbers who have just hit the County Bank Ltd. Claire and her father witness Murdock speed away and follow him. The three-part chase leads out of town, through the countryside, and across a golf course, providing the opportunity for a barrage of familiar jokes, including a worker in a manhole who sticks his head up just as the three speeding cars bear down on him, two ambulance drivers who drop their patient in the street when the cars whiz by them, a man who jumps out of the window of a burning building and lands in the Chingfords' car, and several golfers whose game is interrupted when the cars run over their clubs. Annakin hired several former comics from the music hall era to play the hapless characters victimized during the car chase, including Fred Emney, Eddie Gray, Robertson Hare, and Frankie Howerd. The presence of the old pros elevated the material by paying homage to England's comedy traditions.
The Fast Lady was the second film by Annakin to star Baxter, Justice, Phillips, and Christie. Their first film together, which was released just nine months earlier, was a comedy in the same vein titled Crooks Anonymous (1962). Producers Leslie Parkyn and Julian Wintle, part of the production company known as Independent Artists that released through J. Arthur Rank Distributors, were hoping to establish a series of comedies using Annakin and the same team of actors. Team comedies became a trend in the British film industry during the 1950s with the Doctor series, directed by Ralph Thomas and released by Group Film Productions. Doctor at Sea was released in 1955, launching a multi-film series that stretched to Doctor in Trouble in 1970. Most popular was the Carry On series, which began in 1958 with Carry on Sergeant and continued for two decades up until Carry on Emmannuelle (1978). The Carry On series was directed by Gerald Thomas and starred Kenneth Williams and Kenneth Connor. Team series generally made use of the same directors and the same ensemble casts from film to film. The specific storylines varied but were similar in structure and style.
The team series were influenced by the famous Ealing comedies of the postwar British film industry. The latter comedies were renowned for capturing and projecting the quintessential nature of the British personality and the British way of life. Whimsical, cozy, and backward looking, the Ealing comedies affirmed community, expressed discontent with bureaucracy and authoritarianism, and focused on the peculiar individualism of the British character, which often bordered on the eccentric. Ealing comedies generally featured a large cast of quirky characters, and the studio established teams to work on similar films. Team series such as the Carry On films and the Doctor series borrowed some of the characteristics of the Ealing comedies, at least superficially. The aesthetic peak for team comedy series was probably the early 1960s, around the time of Crooks Anonymous. The late 1960s and 1970s witnessed a relaxation in censorship, and the Carry On series changed, moving away from the charm and music-hall quaintness of the first films and toward a bawdy humor that focused more on sex. Also by the middle of the decade, the films of a younger group of filmmakers from the Angry Young Men generation, including Tony Richardson, John Schlesinger, and Lindsay Anderson, were defining "British cinema," stealing the spotlight from Ealing and its offspring.
Crooks Anonymous and The Fast Lady did not lead to a team series, partly because of the changing times and partly because the only female member of the cast, Julie Christie, became increasingly discontent during the production of the second film. Christie had signed a three-picture contract with producers Parkyn and Wintle, who wanted to make her a big star in the tradition of eras long past. They generated publicity for her in movie magazines and in the press, emphasizing her beauty and glamour, and they sent her to important premieres and industry functions. Parkyn and Wintle became impatient with the starlet's attitude toward their goal. She insisted on dashing around London on an old rusty scooter instead of driving a flashy new car, and when she wore a severe gray suit to a press function, instead of a glamorous dress, angry words were exchanged.
During the production of Crooks Anonymous, her very first film, Annakin treated her with great patience, often sending her home when she was tired and irritable. But, after the film was completed, Christie realized that the director had stereotyped her as the sexy, brainless girl, and nothing more. When assigned a similar role in The Fast Lady, she began causing a bit of trouble on the shoot because she was so miserable. Annakin's approach to her character is evident in his decision to add a scene in which Claire Chingford takes a bet that she can land a job as a striptease artist in a burlesque show. According to Christie, he was merely exploiting her sexuality; according to Annakin in his autobiography, So You Wanna Be a Director?, he was adding "glamour" to his film.
Giving it her best effort, Christie accompanied Annakin to a striptease show at the Windmill Club so she could study how to act and move like a stripper. Two employees of the Windmill Club worked with her, and when it was time to do the scene, she gave a fair approximation of a striptease. Apparently, she was too effective, because the British censors cut the scene severely.
As the production continued, Christie grew more and more difficult, though most of her costars were gracious about her behavior, and she continued to rebel against her star image. After the film, Parkyn and Wintle pressed her about doing a third film in the same style as Crooks Anonymous and The Fast Lady, with Annakin as director. Christie took a vacation, and then stalled her return to the studio. Finally, the producers realized that they could not hold on to her, and they let her out of her contract. She quickly signed to star in Billy Liar (1963), directed by John Schlesinger, followed by Young Cassidy (1965) and Darling (1965). Christie became an icon of the new Swinging London and associated with the contemporary British directors who were creating an international sensation. Her early days as part of a comic ensemble that echoed Britain's past trends and traditions were behind her and soon forgotten.
Producer: Leslie Parkyn and Julian Wintle
Director: Ken Annakin
Screenplay: Jack Davies and Henry Blyth, based on a short story by Keble Howard
Cinematography: Reginald Wyer
Editor: Ralph Sheldon
Music: Norrie Paramor
Art Director: Harry Pottle
Costume Designer: Julie Harris
Cast: Murdoch Troon (Stanley Baxter), Charles Chingford (James Robertson Justice), Freddie Fox (Leslie Phillips), Claire Chingford (Julie Christie), Mrs. Staggers (Kathleen Harrison), Wentworth (Eric Barker), Bulmer (Oliver Johnston), Bodley (Allan Cuthbertson), Dr. Blake (Deryck Guyler), Policeman (Victor Brooks).
by Susan Doll